I recently had a student who designed a new small group system for her church and called them War Ship Small Groups.
And she was uniformly eaten by a couple of students for using battle language … I guess because that kind of language is pointedly missing from the Bible (I don’t know which Bible’s that language is missing from, because both the Hebrew and Christian sides of the scriptures I read have that kind of language from Genesis through Revelation and pretty much everywher in between … I even find the Gentle Good Shepherd Jesus reminding his disciples that he wasn’t there to bring peace, but a sword that would divide families).
In any event, I had to wade in to try and quell the mounting opposition to her rather brilliant idea. Below is my response …
A word about War Ship … as we can see from the response, the church is sensitive to “military” language. In fact, it’s so sensitive that it removed almost all of that language from our hymnal and liturgies. We’ve taken the Jesus with a sword and replaced the sword with a box of Kleenex. We’ve taken Onward Christian Soldiers and replaced it with Jesus, You’re So Beautiful. And in so doing, we have alienated the vast majority of men in the US, one of the fastest fleeing demographics in the church. When I went to seminary, I was taught to not use sports metaphors, to not use battle metaphors, to not use blood language, and to not use masculine pronouns to refer to the Divine. Never mind that this makes at least 50 percent of the Bible totally irrelevant and denigrates thousands of years of tradition. Jesus did not shy away from either beauty metaphors or from military metaphors – it wasn’t either–or, it was both–and. But the Mainline church has largely turned its back on both–and. Indeed, the Mainline church has so feminized the faith that many, if not most, men are uncomfortable with Christianity and the church as we present it.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that our sanctuaries should be bedecked with the American flag (or any flag, for that matter) and that our opening “hymn” should be God Bless America. But I am suggesting that we’ve gone so far to accommodate “political correctness” that we have become not only irrelevant to many men, but distasteful. Yes, masculinity imagery can go too far – and often has – but so can – and has – the alternative. If we don’t find a balance, we will continue to become a church with fewer men until the church effectively becomes a sorority.
Willow Creek was once the largest church in the US … it was the first real Seeker Focused church that intentionally chose to prioritize reaching the unchurched and irreligious over church membership. They had a specific target audience … they targeted middle aged men with families. They made sure that everything, including the driveway route to the parking lot, appealed to men (the drive wends its way around the bass pond which doubles as the outdoor baptistry) … but they were equally careful to balance that against the needs and desires of women and children. However, they realized that if you “get the mom” you get the kids, but if you “get the dad” you get the whole family. They intentionally chose to reach the whole family.
Was everyone welcome at WC? Yes, and to their credit, they did whatever they could to try and be welcoming to all comers. However, they were unapologetic about targeting their target audience. And that’s why they were so very successful in turning the faithless into the faithful, the lost into the found, the unredeemed into baptized followers of Jesus Christ.
You will never be able to appease everyone. Stop trying. It’s not possible. SOMEONE will be offended by the choices you make … get over it because you can’t eliminate it. Indeed, that’s why you’re studying leadership because it takes a leader to make these kinds of VERY DIFFICULT CHOICES. So, choose your target audience and go after them with full gusto … be sensitive and welcoming to all, but unapologetic about reaching your target. Jesus ONLY targeted the Jews … and he was unapologetic about it. But he welcomed all, even though not all were receptive. It was the church outside of Jerusalem that finally targeted non-Jews. There are many churches … no one church can be everything for everyone – so don’t try.
BTW, this is the key reason that, when my wife was pastor, she had a male staff member preach at least monthly and often shared her sermon texts with her male staff to ensure she was relevant to men too. She knew that by virtue of her gender she reflected a feminine side of the faith, so she bent over backwards to accommodate and sometimes accentuate the masculine. Not either–or. Always both–and.
Yes, you are apparently an effective leader, grew churches by being aggressive. That’s actually pretty scary, but it fits our culture. I’m not a bible scholar but yes the battle language and stories are very difficult to reconcile. Some of them don’t seem to work metaphorically. Preaching aggression is likely to strengthen the resolve of the “other side”
Can you please direct me to a sermon that preaches the Beatitudes.?
I don’t believe the article suggests preaching aggression – any more than Paul’s missive about wearing armor and taking up the sword suggests going to battle against “flesh and blood.” But like the article says, it’s not a matter of either-or, it’s being true to the texts with both-and. Jesus gave the beatitudes AND he took up a whip. He demanded love of enemy AND said he came to bring a sword. We’re pretty good at picking and choosing one side or the other. I suggest it’s time for some authenticity and honesty with both sides of the coin. There really is an enemy to “fight.” But as Paul reminds us, it’s a different kind of enemy.
I’m saddened by insisting on the “enemy to fight’ image”.. Yes it does have macho male appeal, it that is what is required,- not suitable in a sorority team. But maybe the “sword” is a metaphor, for a tool of compassion, empathy and love? A heavy weapon to accept, but gratifying to use.
I have read in good contemporary source that “we are all one” and the enemy is us. Doing good in the face of evil behavior would seem to be the Christian way,, not “fight” evil with force. (.unless you are in a WW2 situation)
Maybe I’ve picked the wrong operative words in your message and the above is also a suitable value added for leadership?
I’d be interested to know what we should do with all the battle imagery in scripture, both in the Old and the New Testaments. There’s not just a little here and there, it’s woven through the texts from Matthew to Revelation and in most of the books in between. It seems to me it does violence to the tenor of the scriptures to try and write off so much of what seems straightforward as pure metaphor. But perhaps there is no enemy to fight and evil doesn’t really exist on this plain or any other – of course, that flies in the face of much that Jesus, the writers of the New Testament, and the writings of the early church had to say about the reality of evil. But much popular theology has downplayed the role of evil, especially evil on a spiritual level. Perhaps this is why the Lord’s Prayer was redacted in English to “deliver us from evil” rather than to the more accurate “deliver us from the evil one.” When the church denies evil and the battle to denounce, refute, and thwart it, then at best it has been blinded by it, but at worst it has surrendered to it.
While your point about trying to build a church by focussing efforts on a particular group has some merit, I find the suggestions that 1) ‘beauty’ metaphors appeal only to females and 2) emphasizing war metaphors and symbols is a must-have if a church is going to attract and retain males are exactly the kinds of messages that send people speeding past the church property instead of turning into the parking lot. The images of “Jesus with a sword” and “Jesus with a Kleenex box” are so gallingly disrespectful to Him. “Jesus ONLY targeted the Jews”?…you can’t be serious. Your wife had male staff members pre-review her sermons to ensure they were relevant to men? Interesting. I have never, ever in my entire life heard of a male pastor having female staff members pre-review their sermons to ensure they were relevant to women. And I’m no spring chicken, I assure you. I suppose men are just that much smarter and insightful, so they don’t need women’s opinions.
Matthew 15:24 “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” is just one of the times Jesus made it clear he had a specific target. While he indeed was open to those who came to him, the majority of the time he kept focus on his target. Of course, I didn’t suggest beauty metaphors appeal only to females. Nor does the battle metaphor appeal only to men. That’s hardly the point. Again, both-and, not either-or.
I tend to agree with Don. He is not “denying” that battle imagery as metaphor is present in the scriptures. He pointed out that war – real, physical war – has its place in a ‘last resort’ situation (like WW2). However, while – as you say – Paul’s missive about wearing armor and taking up the sword doesn’t suggest going to battle against “flesh and blood”, we must recognize that the time and place in which Paul dwelt is not the same as ours today, nor the same as that of the Old Testament. Indeed, the New Testament scriptures carry far fewer references to the use of force and violence than the Old Testament scriptures do (Revelations, of course, being a possible exception…but the end of the world as we know it is a pretty cataclysmic thing). Jesus’s message was, overwhelmingly, a message of conversion by understanding and love, not coercion by force.
As you say, “masculinity imagery can go too far”. I presume by “masculinity imagery’ you are talking about war imagery (i.e., War Ships, etc.). One of the problems we have here is that SOME individuals make that leap from metaphor to the reality of ‘flesh and blood’. For some it is not a long drive but a short putt to getting so entrenched in their own views that they cannot hear the views of others, forcefully intimidate others, and even inflict actual bodily harm on others. One need only consider the word ‘jihad’ to understand how short a leap it is.
Language and rhetoric can be powerful and we need to be careful about how we use them, especially in preaching. While I would not suggest that your student change the name of the study groups to “Love Boats”, I can see why others pushed back on the name “War Ships”. Why must we use violent ‘war imagery’ when there are plenty of other images and metaphors that express the ‘manly’ attributes of strength, fortitude and courage? Because it’s easy? Because ‘men think it’s cool’? Not good enough reasons. In the long run, even the seemingly small steps that we take to discourage the use of violence and force make a difference in convincing the world that the love of God and the power of the Holy Spirit are the way to redemption and reconciliation.
So, in answer to your question “What should we do with all the battle imagery in scripture?”, I would say we should acknowledge it, but not use it as the ‘default’ or ‘preferred’ way to make a point about ‘denouncing, refuting, or thwarting’ evil. No one that I know has suggested trying to re-write the Bible to delete such passages. Where appropriate, go ahead and read those scripture passages and put them in context with the time and place they were written. Be specific that ‘battle imagery’ is used as metaphor in the Bible and do not use graphic ‘war’/’blood’ images in printed materials. Explain that the use of force is not the way to truly win the hearts of men…nor women. That takes understanding, compassion and love…a different kind of ‘battle’, and a lot of hard work.
While we’re on the topic, can you please expand on what you mean by the phrase “the Mainline church has so feminized the faith”? Please provide a few examples of “feminized faith” that men are uncomfortable with.
Just one example: Several of the mainline denominations the hymnals were intentionally purged to remove battle and blood language. No more Onward Christian Soldiers or Washed in the Blood or Victory in Jesus. There have been a number of books written on the subject, perhaps the most widely cited is Dave Murrows Why Men Hate Going to Church but there are others. The point wasn’t (still isn’t) to replace, but to augment. The percentage of men in mainline churches is dismal and getting worse. We can do nothing, we can continue the path we’re on, or we can become more inclusive. Personally, I’m all about inclusivity.
I, too, am all about inclusivity, and I, too, am concerned about our churches. I just believe we need to think more creatively than militarizing the doctrine to get there. There must be a better path to win hearts and minds.